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Chris Harshman: Practicing the art of practice | HOMETOWN HERO

Hometown Hero Chris Harshman takes a moment to smile during a jazz class at South Whidbey High School. - Justin Burnett / The Record
Hometown Hero Chris Harshman takes a moment to smile during a jazz class at South Whidbey High School.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

What are you practicing?

Chris Harshman, a South Whidbey volunteer and a music and band teacher, says he’s deliberate as to what he practices in life.

“Whatever we practice, we become good at.” Harshman states.

Grant Neubaauer, a former student of Harshman’s, said he learned to practice much more than music from his mentor. His classes pertain to all of life.

“I didn’t realize the effect Chris had on my life until the day he wasn’t in it anymore. For seven years

I arrived at school one hour before classes for the sheer purpose of making music. At that time, I didn’t realize how special those mornings were, and how much I was learning beyond music. It was only when

I started my freshman year of college did I realize that he’s not your average instructor. Most people don’t show up to work at 6:15 a.m. every morning with unflagging passion and energy. Most people don’t turn their office into a safe place for students when things seem too tough. Most people don’t take a group of 50 raging teenagers and produce one of the best high school jazz ensembles in the country. Because that is what Chris does. Like the time he persuaded a sobbing fifth-grade pianist to stay in jazz band. Chris sees the potential in people even when they don’t see it in themselves. That’s his legacy.”

It’s dusk, seated at the Harshmans’ kitchen table overlooking their large farm of ducks, chickens and Scottish Highland cows, one quickly realizes this will be a captivating evening. He explains with great animation that he studied with a marvelous music professor named Raymond Wheeler. “I love this man for his attitude towards work ethic. I gained a great deal from his tenacious approach towards mastery of anything we want to be good at. With intention: Practice what we want to be good at, don’t practice what we don’t want to be good at.”

He further expounds, while drawing pictures on a napkin, and using his hands, arms and facial expressions. All the while the large family dog, Ziggy, a St. Bernard mix, lays his head on a visitor’s lap, gazes his eyes into yours, and tail wags his whole body. His wife Dyanne, also a teacher and fine musician, excuses herself to go to a community event. Harshman wishes his wife a fulfilled evening, and continues his philosophy on intentional daily practice.

“One way to look at it: Number one, define ‘it’ — figure out what ‘it’ is you wish to develop; number two, break ‘it’ down, get very familiar with ‘it’, from all angles and perspectives; number three, practice ‘it’ perfectly, one element at a time; number four, execute ‘it’ going as fast as you can — never go as fast as you can’t.”

When you are with Harshman you have him all to yourself, fully. Unless ... someone needs him. The phone rings, could he come over with a tool right away?

Without hesitation he says, “I’m on my way.”

Off we go in his old dilapidated car to solve the problem at hand. Task executed,  we are back at the Harshman home. He comments on questions with wit and actions, hand gestures, standing up and making facial expression when needed.

What began your musical interest? “Oh that’s easy, it was our mom, she was a professional guitarist … our parents divorced when I was three and our father wasn’t heard of but a few times until he died in his 50s.

“I always wished I had gotten to know him better, what was he like, what made him leave,” Harshman says this with sincere curiosity without even the slightest judgment.

“Mom worked really hard as a single parent to support us three boys, including making sure we had the best musical lessons and sports opportunities. We were raised around bands and live music making in our home all the time. We lived a Bohemian life performing in coffee houses and hanging out in our U-District neighborhood.”

He brings in some old photos of himself and his brothers growing up with their mom. He shows one of just his mom on the beach, “Isn’t she beautiful? Oh, and here’s one of us sleeping all together in a futon, we slept like puppies.” He laughs out loud remembering these good times.

His face changes to one of concern, lamenting as he tells of when he was 14 and their mom became severely mentally ill, and the three boys quickly realized they needed to find homes to live in, each moved in a different direction. Chris being the youngest moved in with a friend’s family until he landed a job and could share a house with some college students.

“It was a lot to keep up the grades in high school and covering all the bills and rent. But mom raised us all to be independent so it wasn’t a huge stretch really.”

Working with a family member’s mental health is a real hard place to be, it’s one crisis to the next and a revolving door of not much help or hope, he said.

“I’ve learned how precious and delicate mental health is,” Harshman said. “There are many challenges we all face along the path: loss of a job, relationships, environmental factors — including diet, some hit very close to home. There is a great deal of misunderstanding on this subject. After checking with my family and much thought I’ve decided to include this part of my previously untold story, in the hope it might help others to a greater understanding and compassion.

“Life was tough, and I wondered sometimes if it’s all worth it. Then one day in my senior year I drove to a mountain top and sat there looking down and emptied myself of everything. What refilled me was the knowing that I can move forward in life, to think of it as an experiment, and to say ‘yes’ to getting out of my comfort zones.

“If I am doing something and getting nowhere, stop and start all over and do it differently. This was the turning point in my life. I began trying out different things and practice them, always as if life matters, because it does … we all face difficulties in life, but I think life’s even harder for young people, there are some especially dark woods during those times.”

That kind of thinking has impacted his students.

“He brings life’s highs and lows into music,” South Whidbey High School senior Nicole Ledgerwood said, “Music is an expression of life emotion and real situations. For example, he shares a description of musical dissonance as stabbing someone with a rusty sword and then twisting it and yanking it out. His ability to make it easy to understand and comprehend musical and life complexities is one of his gifts. He’s been my teacher for seven years and he gets to know each of us students beyond music. He helps us in many ways, going to our performances, genuinely caring about us, and respecting us, as we do him.”

The next day, seated in the back of one of his band classes, you’d be moved to tears, laughter and get goose bumps, and that’s just in the first

five minutes. It’s easy to see the bond this class of 50 students has developed. When class ends, a handful of students circle Harshman for his attention.

“Mr. Harshman is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met,’’ said South Whidbey student Sidney Hauser. “He’s a teacher and so much more, life coach, friend, musician, parent and always young at heart. The belief he invests in his students gives us the motivation and encouragement to ‘raise our bar’ inside and outside of class.

“Although life can sometimes be as thick as red clay, Mr. Harshman always wants the best for us. For all we know, most of us would not be the people we have become without him, especially myself. There will never be another person like him. His love for music and life has rubbed off on me, and will rub off on anyone who ventures too close, so watch out!”

Harshman feels the immensity of the responsibility and importance of working with young people.

“This is as important as it gets in life, working with these young people that are just waking up to life’s possibilities. I remind them their life story is much bigger than themselves. I tell them to give life their very best shot, saying ‘yes’ when their self-imposed, limited minds may want to say ‘no’.

“A student said to me last week, ‘I have no musical talent in me.’ I said ‘Do you know just in the way you said that is melodic? All you have to do is play one note at a time,’ I asked him to play the first note only, ‘Great! Now play the second’ ... the recipe to any goal is to break down the elements note by note or step by step.

“Fight through that frustration, ‘that stuck place’ just before the dawn breaks. Some stop just shy of finding that ‘dawn’ open door that sends you right around or through the obstacles that ‘try’ to block your path.

I admit that I myself hate that frustrating place just before I ‘get there,’ but once I feel that door open I remember that was exactly the place I needed to be.

“So many distractions in life, many not positive. Pop culture for one. The media tells our youth it’s cool to blow important things off, to be contrary, and to admire the sensationalized, and overly dramatize the mundane. As my grandfather would say: ‘The veneer of civilization is very thin.’ This world is desperate for positive role models. We all can’t help everyone, for example I read about the atrocities in this world, I want to be aware but I cannot dwell on it for it would consume me, and I wouldn’t be able to do my work here. What I can do for the worlds atrocities is pray, and then focus on what I can do before me.

“My students expect and deserve something to happen when they walk into a class. It’s up to me to be prepared and do my very best to make things happen. Though not every day am I at my best, none of us are. Yesterday

I asked a student to try something, and she gave me one of those passive aggressive stink eyes. I said ‘Hey, am I asking you anything that’s unfair?’ She said in a serious tone, ‘Mr. Harshman I am in a bad mood for no reason, okay!’ We looked at one another and we began laughing out loud.”

Legh Burns, Saratoga Chamber conductor, said, “Chris has the ability to walk the fine line between teacher, friend, disciplinarian and empathetic ear. To witness this is inspiring as these traits are among the most important of any successful educator. He demonstrates education at its very best. He practices being his best and being available to help others to achieve their best.”

Harshman asks the question: Isn’t most of life living between the margins really?

“I never want to put anyone in a box, I want to give a person room and space to change for the better. I hope I am able to help them cut a path so they can see clearly how to improve and be their unique best.”

Kaj Lund Olsen, a ninth grader, writes:

Mr. Harshman’s whole life is inspiring. He’s not a teacher that would look forward to a problem  student leaving his class the following year, he wants to meet a person where they are at and help them be the very best they can.

I live in the Coupeville School District, but it’s the opportunities like Mr. Harshman’s music program that brought me to South Whidbey schools. He begins his class with letting us know it’s all about the truth, if you’re sharp you’re sharp, if you’re flat you’re flat, it’s all about us as a team band.

 

Without Mr. Harshman I wouldn’t be in this amazing band. He makes band enjoyable, he makes funny faces and noises, and acts out some of the history behind the music we are playing. He’s eccentric, too. I like that.

What others say about Chris Harshman:

“Chris makes all the hard work that goes into the demands of playing for a school ensemble fun. Our daughter says he delivers life lessons within the music, teaching about doing the right thing, and being the best one can be.”

— Cynthia Kaul, arts booster

 

“ I have learned that one has to work hard to achieve what they want, but when we set our minds to it and achieve our goal, it’s well worth the work. I have also learned from him to be grateful for what you have in life, and to work hard and go after what you want in life.”

— Zoe Hensler, SWHS, grade 11

 

“Music is the greatest gift that can be given freely and it enriches the lives of all it touches. Mr. Harshman has enriched and blessed our community in countless ways with his beautiful music and his instruction.”

— Nora Felt, SWHS, grade 11

 

“Chris is a great gift to his family as well as to his community. His loyalty sustains through just about anything, his humility keeps him on the path of learning, which is where he likes to be, and his humor makes the whole ride fun and often surreal!

His mother described him (when he was still quite young) as, ‘dancing and prancing on a real life stage.’ I would say this is still true today.”

— Dyanne Harshman, Chris’ wife, also a teacher and musician

 

“Mr. Harshman really knows how to get us to play well. He’s one of the best musicians I know; he can single out sounds and direct us to tweak the noise just a bit to make it just the right pitch and tone. He’s got a great sense of humor and is a positive role model for us all.”

— Tristan Wisont, LMS, grade 8

 

“He has a unique way of communicating how to play a particular musical style: it’s a combination of interesting sounds, puns, cultural references, images, evocative metaphors and rhythmic colors. And isn’t this what all of life’s about?”

— Enid Braun, musician, parent

 

“Mr. Harshman is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. He’s a teacher and so much more: life coach, friend, musician, parent and always young at heart. His love for music has rubbed off on me, and will rub off on anyone who ventures too close, so watch out!”

— Sidney Hauser, SWHS, grade 12

 

“He’s not an easy teacher, he pushes the kids to grow beyond what they think is good enough, then the kids get to delight in a success they didn’t imagine was possible.”

— Margot Jerome, parent

 

“Chris lives his vision of heaven: give every child an instrument and teach them to love music. This is a beautiful thing to watch and to listen to.”

— Elizabeth Felt, parent, musician

 

“Chris Harshman is a musician’s musician. He is always prepared and always gives his best efforts and ideas to any performance in which he’s involved. His musicality pours forth from whatever instrument he’s playing and from his baton. ”

— Karl Olsen, dad, music director,

 

“It is a rare teacher who can instruct, motivate, influence, and inspire not only the students in the classroom, but the families of those students, too. Chris is just such a person.”

— Kim Robinson, former band parent

 

“ He is the real deal — inspiring, cajoling, getting more music out of folks young and old; instilling a sense of joyousness that has the potential to inspire individuals now and throughout their lives.”

— Jude Janis, parent, arts booster

 

 

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